The Sea and the Soul

The Proto Indo Europeans of the steppe near the Black Sea had no word for “ocean”. They had mori or mari, meaning “lake” or “sea,” but this most likely referred to the sparkling quality of its surface (cf PIE mer, “clear, sparkle”) and did not carry connotations of vast continent-wrapping waters. When the Indo Europeans started moving and trading around Eurasia, riding their horses and carts and spreading their culture wherever they went, they often found they needed a word for “ocean.” Usually they simply borrowed the word of whoever happened to be living nearby.

For example, the people living in Scandinavia adopted the Indo European language, probably because it was handy for trade; but since it had no word for “ocean”, they used one of their own: saiwaz. While the origin of saiwaz is obscure, spiritually it indicates both the glittering surface of the waters and their willfulness — their capriciousness and uncontrollability. The saiwaz has its own desires, and will do as it wills. In Old English, saiwaz became sæ, and in Middle English, sea. The modern word sea has lost the spiritual willfulness of saiwaz, and calls to only the surface, where the waters meet the airs.

Another word, probably related, used by these people at this time was saiwalo. This word, too, has no known lineage, and carries a lot of the same sounds of glittering surface and willfulness of spirit. It also has a liquid, open quality, of something both empty and full at the same time, like a pitcher filled with light.

No one is sure what this word actually meant — what the people used the word to refer to. But in Old English saiwalo became sawol, and was used to mean a person’s spirit or emotions, or their animating force. It was not a concept easy to pin down exactly; and its modern descendent, soul, is similarly difficult to quantify. Spiritually the word’s sounds still echo that bright surface, as well as the full emptiness of light; but it also carries tones of wholesomeness and grounding.

Thousands of years ago, there was a people, now lost, living by the northern seas; and they felt so strongly the tether between the sea and the soul that they used almost the same word for both. Today we still are not sure what a soul is, but we still feel the bond.


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3 responses to “The Sea and the Soul”

  1. […] in time, Jeff Lilly over at Druid Journal explores the origins of the word “sea” and its intriguing connection to another word for spirit: soul. The Proto Indo Europeans of the […]


  2. This strikes a chord with me. I grew up on the coast and used to find a deserted stretch of beach late at night where I could sit quietly, watch the waves under the reflected moonlight and hear the gentle, near-eternal rhythm. It would make me deeply aware of how big and ancient the world is, how small and brief my place in it.

    Thanks for the reminder. I miss those nights.


  3. […] the edge of the Sea, Alison and I are getting married today. May our souls be wound round each other in joy. May Earth, Sea and Sky bless us, and may our love be as great as they, and as free, as wild, as […]


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